An African voice rises out of the fire

Niambele at work in Highbridge. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Niambele at work in Highbridge. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Bourema Niambele still speaks in hushed tones about the fire that tore through the lower levels of a duplex house on Woodycrest Avenue in 2007, killing nine people from two close-knit families of West African immigrants. The inferno was one of New York City’s deadliest, raging for two hours and requiring more than 150 fire fighters to subdue.

Nearly three years later, however, Niambele’s deep voice grows far more forceful as he explains the incident’s indelible impression on him.

“When I saw that fire,” the 38-year-old Mali immigrant said, “I said to myself, ‘Everything’s going to change.’”

A new picture of the South Bronx’s immigrant community emerged in the fire’s aftermath: a West African population, largely ignored and underestimated, had been growing along its western and northern rim for decades. They were disjointed and most clung fiercely to their cultural roots. Now they were shaken.

So, too, was Niambele, an immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1998 and ran his own car service in the Bronx. The incident didn’t affect him physically, but it served to resurrect Niambele’s activist past, which had begun as a youth protester and then a clandestine revolutionary in Africa decades earlier.

After the fire, Niambele — known as “Nabi” — quit his business, the main lifeline of monetary support for his wife and four children in Mali. He decided to rely on his savings and to rededicate his life to public service, this time to a faction of people living in the complex cultural stew of the South Bronx.

“That fire has changed my life, to become more involved in Highbridge and more involved with the African community,” Niambele said. “Not everything is about yourself. The best way to be good to yourself is to do good for other people.”

In January, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. initiated the African Advisory Council to help address issues such as crime, education and assimilation difficulties facing African immigrants in their communities. He named Niambele as its inaugural coordinator.

It was a humbling appointment for Niambele, whose baggy eyes hint at the tireless approach he has taken toward his volunteer community efforts. His office — the one he shares, a few days a week, at the Highbridge Family Services Center on Nelson Avenue — is nondescript, cluttered with papers and tucked in a corner behind a waiting room. But the Blackberry at his hip vibrates incessantly — another appointment to make, another board meeting to attend, another fundraiser to organize for the growing number of African people he serves.

Niambele’s Advisory Council was established in part as an acknowledgment of the boom of African immigrants coming to the South Bronx from places like Ghana, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast in large numbers. Estimates are expected to show over 60,000 Africans living in the Bronx when the new census data comes out, double the number from just a decade ago. Such swift proliferation of people has diversified neighborhoods that were predominantly Latin American, spread the influence of Islamic culture, and also tested the tolerance of locals in an area where African hate crimes have a had history.

A year ago, a brutal assault of a Gambia immigrant stirred the Bronx African community, and in July the murder of an 18-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone capped 12 months of attacks on mosques and African storeowners that have pushed Niambele and other local imams and community leaders to the brink of frustration over what he deems to be blatant hate crimes.

Niambele met personally with the new Bronx police commander Carlos Gomez in May and, along with several imams and community leaders, has pleaded with police to keep a closer eye on some of the areas where assaults have been more prevalent.

A police spokesperson said it’s not the first time such an effort has been made, but Niambele has been a difficult campaigner to ignore. Indeed, he is a forceful persona despite an unassuming stature: unblinking eyes that dig deeply in conversation, a booming voice, and a trademark piece of attire — the omnipresent leather cowboy hat he totes around the neighborhood, like a sheriff.

“If you’re not constantly in someone’s face, the causes you’re working for are never going to get addressed,” said Jose Rodriguez, the district manager of Community Board 4. “He’s representing his constituency well.”

Niambele has used his ties to the Highbridge Community Life Center, a local nonprofit aimed at addressing community needs, to draft a proposal to begin a city school program designed to inform kids about the cultural distinctions of African and Muslim communities — like women covering their faces, bigamous marriage practices and untraditional educational beliefs — as well as help immigrant parents ease their children into American society.

The proposal is expected to be considered by the Highbridge School Coalition, a gathering of half a dozen public and charter schools, at the end of the month. Chauncy Young, the Coalition’s organizer, thinks it could be implemented.

“I think it could work,” Young said. “If it’s organized well.”
So Niambele will organize it — much like the other neighborhood affairs to clog his digital calendar. Community work has choked away most of his free time, so much that he missed his son’s graduation from high school in Bamako, Mali, this June; he flew out to celebrate two days later.

It was the first time in several months he’d seen his family, and Niambele, who immigrated to the United States in 1998, has grown accustomed to a long-distance relationship based on phone calls and long flights. It is, he says, better than the alternative.

“Sometimes it’s not easy for me to stay there,” Niambele said, referring to his homeland, a country with which his relationship is complex.

As an adolescent, Niambele’s family moved from Mali to Cote D’Ivoire, which had fallen into severe economic decline and social unrest. As a 15-year-old, he organized student opposition to the government led by Felix Houphouët-Boigny, which he believed to be unjust and totalitarian.

“You just say to yourself, something has to be changed here,” Niambele said.

By the time he was 22, Niambele had been imprisoned twice for his political activism, threatening his ability to study law at the National University. He eventually quit school and for seven years worked discreetly for the Front Populaire Ivorien, an organization devoted to founding a new government system. He slipped back and forth between the Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, keeping a clandestine profile as a political activist working toward bringing democracy to the state.

When the danger of imprisonment grew too great, he eventually settled back in Mali, raised a family, and began a new life. He stayed away from the Cote D’Ivoire for 15 years, but the scars from his fight for a fairer government remain sore.

“Sometimes, even with Ivory Coast politics here, I take myself out of it,” Niambele said, his voice rising. “I don’t want to be part of it, I don’t want to hear anything.”

Niambele moved to the United States in 1998 but left his family behind for financial reasons, and he soon founded the New York Council of Malians, along with his small car service. After the fire, he joined AmeriCorps, a national community service organization, which placed him at the Highbridge Community Life Center. In January, the Advisory Council was founded and Niambele was put in charge of 18 other members, from various districts of the Bronx.

“I think Nabi really sees himself as a leader and an activist for the community,” Young said. “He has his own goals and perspective that go beyond any single community organization.”

In November, Niambele is planning on organizing an African celebration complete with food stands and musical entertainment. He smiles as he imagines the thought: a crowded community fair of immigrants, comingling in harmony, finally recognized as a piece in the Bronx’s diverse puzzle, three years after the fire that tore through its heart.

“This is like the easy part for me,” Niambele said. “People who are born here don’t know how good this country is. Those who come, who have been part of different systems, we appreciate and enjoyed it more. It becomes a blessing to be able to work.”

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